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Rethinking child care in Toronto

Arlene Francis of Mothereaze with her daughter. COURTESY: Yonge Street Media/Tanja Tiziana.

Arlene Francis was a mortgage broker who managed dozens of people. The busy executive had no reason to be concerned with child care—until she found out she was pregnant. The timing was awful. The news came to her just as her relationship was falling apart, forcing her to face what would become her biggest challenge yet: working single motherhood.

“It’s harder than I ever would have imagined it would have been,” she says. She was used to managing mortgage deals from across Canada, but jetting around from meeting to meeting was just not possible with her baby on her hip. She got herself on a list for subsidized daycare, but she struggled in the interim.

“If you’ve got a baby and no child care, you can’t do your job. I never thought I’d be in a position where I would ever have to give up my job,” she says.

Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention. Francis went online to try to find someone who could help her out a couple times per week. What she found instead was a gap in the market.

The candidates she was coming across fell short in credentials. She had the idea that potential caregivers should be screened in advance. She also realized that sifting for the right candidate is a time consuming task that most new mothers simply do not have time for.

Her struggles gave her a bright new idea and an excuse to finally start her own business—something she’d always dreamed of.

“I was never satisfied working for others,” she says. She sold her condo and sustained herself with the proceeds as she hatched a plan to address a very real need for women in her position: finding qualified help. “There were a lot of things around my home that if I had a partner or outside help it would have been managed much more easily. But it was really hard to manage alone,” she says.

Her plan was to develop a comprehensive system that would connect new moms with pre-screened, qualified caregivers on a platform that was seamless, easy, and fun-to-use.

After reaching out to George Brown College to help develop her idea, Francis is now preparing to launch Mothereaze.com early this summer. She worked with GBC to devise a business plan and actualize her vision, and is currently working with the gaming and graphic design departments on website development. They are in the process of streamlining user paths and polishing the interface. In the meantime, she is amassing a pool of qualified applicants that moms can choose from to help out with their little ones.

Francis’ intensive involvement in candidate screening is what sets Mothereaze apart from rival services. “I fully interview, screen them, get all documentation and background checks, CPR verification, immunizations—and then I check at least three references. So they’re fully screened by myself. It’s a long process.”

Her qualified caregivers include ECE workers, nurses, and professional caregivers. She then provides bios and profiles to help moms discern which is the best fit for their families.

For clients like Isorine Marc, the executive and programming director of Jamii Esplanade, Francis’ help has been invaluable. Marc was getting ready to get back to work full-time after having her first child when she and Francis met.

“I didn’t know [Canada’s] system that well because I don’t have family around with babies,” says Marc, who moved here from France. “Arlene told me about the different day-cares, drop-in centres, and she connected me with other moms, creating all that support that you need as a new mother to handle the situations.”
While moms in France enjoy universal daycare, the system is not so amenable here.

“When I found out the price — that it was almost the equivalent of a full-time salary — I was a bit shocked,” Marc says. “In France, after a few months, there’s a system in place so women can go back to work. What’s great about Canada is that you get the first year so you can breastfeed for a whole year, but when it’s time to get back to work, daycare costs a lot.”

Sahar Ashraf is one of the ECE workers who will be featured on the site. She works at a daycare pre-school class during the day that costs parents $1700 per month.

“A lot of parents cannot afford that,” she says. “And then you have to factor in the cost of dropping the child off at daycare, and picking them up at a certain time because if you pick them up after 6 p.m., it’s a dollar per minute that you’re late.”

She speaks of the growing demand for qualified caregivers, particularly due to the prohibitive cost of daycare. The City of Toronto recently responded to legislative and regulatory changes affecting child care in Ontario, recommending that the amount of registered ECE’s within a daycare centre be increase — particularly when it came to infants and toddlers — due to the significant contribution of registered ECE’s to child development and curriculum planning.

The advantage to caregivers is that Francis also screens the parents, while offering an hourly rate to individual caregivers. Caregivers also have the ability to choose their own hours, making the flexibility appealing and rewarding.

“It works out for me because I know there’s a set rate. I don’t have to negotiate a rate with the parent, and I know that I’m going to be with people that are financially secure and they will be able to pay me,” Ashraf says.

Finding someone Marc could trust for child care was of utmost importance and so she turned to Francis’ certification system, which argues that kids get the added one-on-one attention often missed in standard daycares. Children are also exposed to less colds and viruses.

“You can leave home and know your daughter is with a babysitter that really knows what she’s doing,” Marc says.

Francis eventually wants to branch out and start having mixers, a pseudo speed dating for caregivers. “What I call ‘sitter search,'” explains Francis. She wants to hold them throughout the city, “so that parents can meet the sitters in their area—and know who they are before they are hiring.”

Securing child care can be a fulltime job. For many working families, daycare may not always be a feasible alternative. Francis knows firsthand how difficult this is. She’s living it. “I thought, if I felt this way — and I feel like I’m a person that’s usually on top of everything — if I felt that I was drowning, then what is everyone else doing?”

She is excited to provide new moms with support at a critical juncture in their child’s life.

“Everything I do is from a mom’s perspective,” she says, “in making a mother feel comfortable and safe.”

That, for many, makes for a very happy Mother’s Day.

Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator who lives in Toronto. She is drawn to the quirky and eclectic stories of those that live and work here.